Six Science-Based Strategies to Beat Holiday Bloat (Op-Ed)

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Katherine Tallmadge, M.A., R.D., is a registered dietitian, noted motivational and wellness speaker, author of "Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations" (LifeLine Press, 2011) and a frequent national commentator on nutrition topics. Tallmadge contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Holidays are a time for celebrating life and for bringing families together. They also mean many opportunities for socializing, over-eating and drinking. Remember, the "holidays" are only three days, not every day between Thanksgiving and New Years! And, isn't looking and feeling your best your priority? How about the praises from friends and family you haven't seen since last year? Or even your doctor, who is thrilled with your improved health and blood test results…

Here are six slimming strategies for surviving the holidays without the bloat.

1. Beware variety. Variety is the single most important factor determining how much you eat. Think about it: You're at a party where there are seven types of cookies on the table. How many will you have? One of each? Maybe a few more of your favorite? What if there were only one type of cookie? You'd have one, maybe two at the most. When there are three pies on the holiday table — pumpkin, apple and pecan. Won't you have a slice of each? What if there were only one type of pie, say apple? Wouldn't you just have one slice?

Why? Studies show the human instinct for craving variety evolved over millions of years so that we would get enough nutrients to survive. But today, because we are exposed to a variety of fattening foods — especially at restaurants, buffets or parties — variety is a significant factor contributing to overeating and the obesity epidemic.

Bottom line: How can you use variety to lose weight? Serve a variety of healthy foods to yourself and your family — have them accessible, ready-to-eat. Would you prefer a bowl of sliced apples or a fruit salad with a variety of fruits? Why do people love salad bars so much? Because there is a beautiful array of colors, flavors, textures and shapes from which to choose. Diet Simple's menu plans are filled with variety to help you stay on your plan and lose weight. (Learn more in this article about how variety and too many choices leads to weight problems and how you can use variety to lose weight instead of gaining it.)

2. Volume: eating more to eat less. As long as a volume of food is high, people can feel full with fewer calories. In one study, researchers varied the amount of water in a food eaten as a first course and found subjects who ate soup before a meal consumed 26 percent fewer calories at the main course. In another study, the researchers served salads before a main course, and found people ate about 100 calories fewer at the following meal.

Why? A large food volume caused by water incorporated into the food — as in vegetables, fruits and soups — even without added calories, improves your feelings of fullness in a variety of ways. First, it causes stomach stretching and slows stomach emptying, stimulating the nerves and hormones that signal feelings of fullness. Second, visually seeing a large volume of food can increase your ability to feel satisfied by it. And finally, the larger a meal and the longer a meal goes on, the more you lose interest in completing it. Water in food keeps calories low and has the largest influence on how much you eat. The studies show eating a high-water-content, low-calorie first course enhances satiety and reduces calorie intake at the next course.

Bottom line: If you eat alow-calorie soup or salad before every meal, you could save 200 calories daily and lose 20 pounds in a year — all with this simple change alone. Diet Simple, and Diet Simple Farm to Table both have a wide variety of family-friendly soup and salad recipes that will fill you up without the calories. (You can also find out how simple, sumptuous soups can speed up your weight loss in this article.)

3. Control serving size. Simply the amount of food you are served will affect how full you feel and how much you eat. When people are served varying amounts of the same food, a smaller portion satisfies as much as a large one. But when served larger amounts at the outset, people eat more without realizing it, sometimes 300 to 800 more calories. If the effect persists beyond two days, those extra calories, added daily over the course of a year, would pack on 30 to 80 pounds in one year.

Why? Humans find portion size difficult to judge, and don't adjust our intake. Also, people tend to eat in units. If we're given a bag or a portion of something, there's a compulsion to finish it, especially if it's a tasty, high calorie food. So, when served larger portions, we adjust our level of satiety to accommodate greater calorie intakes. Fortunately, studies have also found that the reverse is true.

Bottom line: Control the food that is put in front of you. When good-tasting, lower-calorie foods or portion-controlled meals are available, we will eat those and feel just as satisfied. If that saves 300 calories at lunch and dinner, that's 60 pounds lost in one year. Diet Simple, and Diet Simple Farm to Table are filled with wonderful ideas and recipes to help you stay on your program. 

4. Food pushers. To be fair, "food pushers," as I call them, aren't necessarily bad people. Your mom, your spouse, your friends — they just want to please you. They are people who think they have your best interests at heart. My clients and I have tried various tactics to deal with food pushers through the years, most of them utter failures. I've tried explaining that I wasn't hungry. I even went through a phase of telling people I was allergic to this or that. That didn't work, either. And I learned that the worst thing you can say to a food pusher is, "No thanks, I'm on a diet," or, "Thanks, I'm watching it."

Why? You might as well say, "Talk me into it!" First, your excuse is giving the food pusher a double signal — that you really want it but have to refuse. Second, it might also sound insulting, implying that the food isn't good enough for your refined tastes. And finally, your response might make the pusher feel guilty, as if he or she should be "watching it," too. All of these things challenge the food pusher to seduce you.

Bottom line: I finally began to make headway when I learned the most basic rule of all: Never give excuses. I'm delighted to say that one of the foremost authorities on etiquette told me that this approach is both appropriate and wise. "The best answer is a simple but firm 'No thank you,'" declared Judith Martin, the syndicated columnist who writes as Miss Manners. "Once you give an excuse, you open yourself to argument." Save at least 200 calories per day by saying, "No thank you," to your food pusher and lose 20 pounds in one year! There are many ideas for handling food pushers in Diet Simple

5. Show control with sweets. Sweets are everywhere during the holidays. People have an inborn attraction to sweets. If you don't believe it, simply watch an infant's response to something sweet versus, say, a vegetable. There's an automatic acceptance, even joy, after eating something sweet. On the other hand, vegetables are an acquired taste, which may take 10 to 20 tries before acceptance.

Why? This is partly explained by evolution. Humans have been eating naturally sweet foods, such as breast milk and fruit, for millions of years. Such foods contain life-sustaining nutrients, and a love for those foods helped keep us alive. Also, during evolution, an attraction to scarce calorie-dense foods, such as sweets and fats, improved our chances for survival.

Bottom line: Because we have a natural urge for sweets, include something naturally sweet at every meal, such as fruit (remember the importance of variety?). My clients who try this find their cravings for high-calorie, super-sweet foods reduce. Another strategy would be to go ahead and eat a tiny sweet each day, say, 10 percent of your daily calories. Or, splurge once a week on a large dessert. Eat a 150 calorie treat instead of a 300 calorie treat daily and lose 15 pounds in a year! In Diet Simple, there are many ideas for having your sweets and eating them too! (Learn more about sweets, the science behind our sweet cravings and strategies for coping in this article.)

6. Keep up with physical activity. Simply put, during the holidays you're so busy, you may feel you have less time to exercise. This is why I and all my clients wear pedometers, a tiny device which measures your steps. We find the pedometer encourages us to walk just a little more here and there.

Bottom line: Just 2,000 steps — or one mile — more per day (only 15 to 20 minutes) will burn about 100 to 200 more calories and that saves 10 to 20 pounds in a year! In Diet Simple, there are many creative ways to increase your physical activity — to fit your unique needs for weight loss — so you barely notice you're exercising.

Tallmadge's most recent Op-Ed was "Go Ahead, Eat the Halloween Candy" and her additional contributions are available on her profile page. Her latest book is "Diet Simple Farm to Table Recipes: 50 New Reasons to Cook In Season." You can follow Tallmadge on Facebook, Twitter @KETallmadgeand on YouTube. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.

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